Oh, the places you’ll go!

I just topped off a whirlwind of travel over the past month with a trip to my hometown, the Twin Cities.

I still visit from time to time to see family and friends, but on this occasion I went for the first site visit of my fellowship with the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities PLACES program.

PLACES aims to advance funder efforts that empower communities of color and low-income communities to influence growth and development decision-making in their communities.

There’s lots of things to share about my time in Minneapolis, but I wanted to offer two takeaways from my visit.

The story of the Twin Cities is familiar.

Not only does it evoke a host of teenage memories, but it sounds and looks a lot like Portland. The region is growing and its economy is strong. Like Portland, it has more nonprofits than most places, all working to improve the region. But, not everyone is doing well. Communities of color, low-income communities and communities that have historically experienced disparities are falling further behind while communities that have privilege are getting further ahead. Unemployment disparities are especially stark. Race, place and outcomes are highly correlated. We heard that “Minneapolis is fierce about affordable housing.” We know that Portland’s affordable housing conversation is also fierce … in that friendly, Portland way. Numerous presenters referenced a culture of “Minnesota nice” that hinders productive discourse about race. In Portland, we all know about “Portland nice.” And, it seems to cause a similar problem.

Work for equity and social change is complex. It requires collaboration and long-term commitment. It’s not the work of individuals acting in isolation or for the faint of heart.

We saw this in action during an all-day visit to the North Minneapolis Broadway Corridor — a place where community leaders demonstrate passionate commitment to their community, despite the deep disparities and challenges they face. During a panel discussion, community leaders described decades-long disinvestments in the area, while resources poured into neighboring white neighborhoods. The panel buzzed with what someone dubbed “positive tension.” The leaders didn’t agree on everything. They challenged each other’s assumptions and spoke difficult truths to each other — and to us.

DeVon Nolen, a force for positive change and Project/Market Manager of the West Broadway Business Area Coalition, led us on a tour of the corridor which included numerous nonprofits and small businesses working together. She shared creative solutions — some that haven’t yet taken hold and others that are working. For example, amidst a shower of bubbles (yes, bubbles) flowing from the rooftop of its building, Juxtaposition Arts wowed us with their youth empowerment and community development work. Along the way, we met business owners, long-time residents, and newcomers young and old, who shared impressions about the community or quizzed us about what we were doing there. Folks were clearly interested and engaged.

During lunch at Breaking Bread, an impromptu parade of several North Minneapolis leaders shared inspiring vignettes about their work. I particularly appreciated hearing from the director of Neighbors Organizing for Change who won a commitment from the state to reinvest some of the its surplus dollars into North Minneapolis. This is how real change happens.

20160413_165834We topped off the day by hearing from the Northside Funders Group, a collaborative of philanthropic organizations aligning investments to reduce disparities in North Minneapolis.

The level of collaboration, organizing and action we saw was remarkable. Even though I grew up in the Twin Cities, I didn’t know the story of North Minneapolis or many of the other things I learned during the site visit.

Over the coming year, the PLACES program will offer me three more opportunities — in Hartford, Conn.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Jacksonville, Fla. — to hear how different funders are supporting and engaging with communities to advance equity. I look forward to sharing what I learn next time and how we can apply lessons from PLACES to our work for an equitable and flourishing Oregon.

— JF

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